Slow Food for Thought: The Sustainability of a Vegetarian Diet
The average American eats three burgers per week! That's 156 burgers per person per year, which means that more than 48 billion burgers are consumed in the United States each year. This is only part of how Americans, on average, eat three times more meat than people in other countries. I am not one of these people.
In my last article I discussed my journey as a vegetarian over the past year and a half. I shared some of my reasons and rationale for engaging in this lifestyle. As I mentioned, my rationale is three-fold: animal rights, health, and environmental sustainability. Animal rights is purely a personal reason. I place value on the lives of all creatures, not just humans. I am able to meet my nutritional needs without consuming animal products, thus I choose to do so. As for health, there are many studies that report negative health consequences to consuming meat. At the very least, the frequency and amount of meat consumption in most western cultures, especially in the U.S., is far beyond what humans have consumed for the majority of our existence; that is until the major industrialization of food production in the last half century.
The most compelling reason for considering a vegetarian diet, or at least reducing one’s meat consumption, is the severe environmental impact associated with it’s production. When you choose to eat meat, it affects everyone.
Livestock production uses an exceptionally large quantity of land – 30 percent of the Earth’s entire land surface is used for livestock production. Additionally, 33 percent of arable land is used to produce feed for livestock. As prosperity increases around the world, more people can afford animal products and thus demand increases. This leads to more land being appropriated, often through deforestation, for both livestock production and crops for animal feed. For example, some 70 percent of former Amazonian forests have been turned over to grazing.
The livestock sector generates 18 percent of global CO2 equivalent greenhouse gas emissions, which is more than the entire transportation sector. Livestock manure releases methane and nitrous oxide, which are very potent greenhouse gases.These emissions contribute to global warming just the way your car does. Additionally, manure decomposition also releases ammonia, which causes an increase in acid rain.
The industrialization of livestock production into factory farms has additional ramifications. Since these animals are kept in such unhealthy conditions that they regularly get sick, a massive amount of drugs are required to keep them from dying and infecting other animals before they are processed. According to the U.S. FDA, about 80 percent of all antibiotics produced and sold domestically in the U.S. are used on farm animals. In turn, these animals produce waste that has antibiotic residue that is then absorbed into the ground contaminating soil and water supplies. In addition to consuming antibiotics through meat consumption, humans also ingest the antibiotic residues. Appetizing?
A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition analyzed the merits of the average American meat-based diet compared to the lacto-ovo vegetarian diet (one including dairy and egg products). It concluded that the lacto-ovo vegetarian diet is more sustainable considering that the meat based food system requires significantly more energy, land, and water resources.
Here are some numbers to sum it all up. It takes a fraction of the energy and water to produce food from plants than it does from meat. There are various estimates, and it depends what you consider in the lifecycle analysis of various food products. By some measures it takes 28 calories of fossil fuel energy to produce 1 calorie of meat protein for human consumption; it takes only 3.3 calories of fossil fuel energy to produce 1 calorie of protein from grain for human consumption. The same can be said for water: a standard diet of a person in the U.S. requires 4,200 gallons of water per day (for animals’ drinking water, irrigation of crops, processing, washing, cooking, etc.). A person on a vegan diet requires only 300 gallons a day.
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Why are humans, as rational creatures, producing crops to feed to animals so we can process the animals to feed to people? Why not just produce crops to feed to people and simplify the whole supply chain? Plant based foods can produce an equivalent amount of calories and nutrients for human consumption by using less resources and creating less environmental degradation. I think this makes sense both logically and economically. That is why I choose to be a vegetarian. If you care about the planet and future generations, I invite you to consider reassessing your dietary choices and give vegetarianism a try.
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